SEPTEMBER 20, 2018 – Their names may be familiar: Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, Esther. They are among the women of the Hebrew Bible.
But while women are present throughout the Bible, the stories often are about their fathers, husbands, and sons. Women’s stories are largely hidden or overshadowed, leading children to wonder who these women were and why we know so little about them.
Along come Jane Yolen and Barbara Diamond Goldin, two masterful storytellers and award-winning book writers for children and teens. They teamed up for “Meet Me at the Well: The Girls and Women of the Bible,” a richly enlightening and imaginative treasure illustrated by Vali Mintzi, suited for ages 10 and up.
“Girls and women in the Hebrew Bible are strong-willed and tough-minded and demonstrate faith, daring, and endurance,” Yolen and Diamond Goldin wrote in the book’s introduction. “They are also resourceful, courageous, inventive, and smart.”
The same could be said about the noteworthy authors, who both live in Western Massachusetts.
Yolen, an author of picture books, folk tales, and fantasy stories, is best known for her trailblazing Holocaust novel, “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” which has sold more than 1.8 million copies and was made into a popular TV film starring Kirsten Dunst. With more than 365 titles to her name, the prolific author has written many books with Jewish themes and characters, including “Mapping the Bones,” her third fantasy Holocaust novel, and “Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook,” written with her adult daughter, Heidi Stemple.
Diamond Goldin is considered by many as one of the deans of Jewish children’s literature, with popular titles including “The Passover Cowboy,” “The World’s Birthday: A Rosh Hashanah Story,” “Cakes and Miracles: A Purim Tale,” and “Journeys with Elijah: Eight Tales of the Prophet.”
In “Meet Me at the Well,” the pair chose 14 strong biblical women and set out to answer the question they pose in the opening pages: “What makes this woman a hero of this tale?”
Each character is accorded a brief introduction and a condensed retelling of the biblical story. Page layouts include separate boxes with fascinating questions and insights, like modern-day Talmudic commentaries that draw on history and questions that relate to today’s world.
In one box on Sarah, the wife of Abraham who gave birth to Isaac at an old age, readers discover traditional commentaries on questions including, “Why Does Sarah Laugh?” as referenced in the biblical verse.
In the section on Rebecca, one side-story addresses whether it was common for a young woman to be asked to give permission for marriage, as happens in the Torah narrative.
“Meet Me at the Well” soars beyond ho-hum biblical retellings, with the curiosity, wisdom, and creativity of the authors. Diamond Goldin imagined a Midrash-like story for each woman and Yolen penned a poem inspired by the character.
The colorful, vibrant illustrations by Jerusalem artist Vali Mintzi reflect the period and setting of each story.
At first blush, Yolen and Diamond Goldin could seem like an odd couple for a book on biblical stories.
“We come from very different backgrounds,” Diamond Goldin told the Journal in a recent phone conversation. Diamond Goldin grew up in a religiously observant home, attended Hebrew school, and graduated from Gratz Jewish Community High School just outside Philadelphia. She’s a longtime Jewish educator.
Yolen’s family celebrated some Jewish holidays with relatives but did not join a synagogue until Yolen turned 13, when the teen requested to be confirmed. She was the first girl at her family’s Reform congregation in Westport, Conn. to read from the Torah. Yolen was intrigued by world religion, and at Smith College, she minored in religion, she said in a conversation earlier this year.
About eight years ago, Yolen, who had long wanted to write a book on women in the Bible, approached Diamond Goldin with what felt like an out-of-the blue-announcement, that they had a contract to write the book, Diamond Goldin recalled with a laugh.
While Diamond Goldin had just begun a three-year graduate program in library science, she shared Yolen’s passion for the subject and embraced the opportunity to work with her friend and one-time mentor.
Their approaches were different but complementary. “Jane is more of a storyteller. I approach [the stories of the Torah] as a holy work and don’t like to change things too much,” Diamond Goldin said.
Now a library director in Southampton, Diamond Goldin especially enjoyed writing the imagined stories for each woman, which she described as a kind of “Dear Diary.”
“I would try to imagine what they were feeling,” she said.
While the process had its occasional challenges, the endeavor has strengthened their friendship, Diamond Goldin said. They are enjoying themselves at book launch events, including one held at Kolbo Fine Judaica Gallery in Brookline.
“I had no idea we would have so much fun.”